The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.

How Can Kids Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment?

I’ve been guilty of telling parents of students in my class that we have a safe classroom environment where we encourage students to take risks. I’ve come to realize that risk and safety are are really oxymorons. What I mean to say when I use the word risk is that kids will try a lot of new things. They will get many of them wrong and fail, but when they succeed, the grit and resilience it took to get them there, will fuel them on to learn more.

In our traditional industrial age world, risk was not seen as something for the general public. Trying something new on an assembly line could mean getting fired. Many of these hierarchical structures exist, and schools are no exception. Because of this, teachers have to be fairly calculated when going out on a limb. Within our values statement at my school, we have the following:

Resourcefulness: We foster resilience and expect all to search and find, to fail and learn, to risk and succeed in a changing world.

It think it’s beautifully written, however, if we hold these values for our students, certainly we must hold these values for our teachers and other community members. Due to structures of schools (remnants of the 19th and 20th centuries), risks can be very costly.

Recently, Seattle teachers were suspended for boycotting a particular test. We teach our children to stand up, not to be bystanders, engage in politics and democracy, yet when teachers model these very things, the consequences can sometimes seem harsh. I guess it wouldn’t be that risky otherwise.

Before the NAIS conference, a colleague in California raised many questions about the NAIS’s boards decision on the new president-elect, John Chubb. While I am sure the board’s intentions are good, the announcement was a surprise. The letter, though written respectfully, asked hard and important questions. Yet, from what I heard at the conference, he was scolded for raising those questions.

Again I ask, don’t we want our students to be inquisitive, challenge the status quo, engage in the process (which can be amplified through social media), and think critically?

One of the reasons for academic tenure is so intellectuals can have debates and build support for those ideas publicly. They may end up being wrong, but at least they won’t be fired for it.

I’ve been known to ‘go rogue’  and ‘fight windmills’ but I’ve also been supported and guided as to how I might balance those things. Still, in a school with no tenure, challenging the status quo with a simple question, “why?” requires risk.

At the NAIS conference, there were calls to be revolutionaries, visionaries, rogues, vanguards, pioneers, mavericks, and change agents. Most of those kinds teachers were already at that conference. We were told to change paradigms and forge ahead.

Most other teachers, however, just want to love their kids and become excellent teachers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I met a first grade teacher who was only in her second year of teaching and was overwhelmed with the conference. “They’re asking me to be all those things, be culturally competent, employ project-based learning and design thinking, integrate sustainability in the classroom, use technology in ways I never thought possible, create a global teaching network, and that’s not even including just teaching 1st grade.

My advice to her, was that when I first started teaching almost two decades ago, all these things were foreign to me too. All she needed to do was think of her students first, know where to find support when she needed it, asked questions (lots of them), carry on when things don’t seem to be going well, and always be open to and willing to learn something. If she could do these things, she would find this career an incredibly rewarding one.

I’m not a big fan of words like revolutionary. They bring up different connotations depending on who you ask. George Washington was a revolutionary; so was Hugo Chavez.

“If We (Teachers) Can Be Replaced By A Computer Screen, …

…we should be.” Cathy Davidson

That was pretty much how the NAIS conference ended. It was the last slide for Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote. I couldn’t agree more with that statement.

For some teachers, it may seem a scary thought, but for most in attendance, it was validation that the we live in a very different world than we did even five years ago, and we need to adapt and prepare our kids for an unknown future.

Her most recent book is called, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century. I recommend you visit her website and check out some notes from her talk here.

I am a big fan of Davidson’s work, and Davidson’s ideas resonate with me a lot, but I feel she can sometimes back herself into a corner with her beliefs, and rather than present her ideas with a more balanced approach, her arguments often come across polemical.

Take her statement, for example:

Move from critical thinking to creative contribution.

Both are important. I agree with Davidson that students need to build, make, do, invent, and so on, but they must be able to discern, analyze and evaluate while doing so. I think I know what she’s trying to say in that statement, but it still evoked a reaction from me.  Prior to mentioning this, Davidson talked about a website that appeared to be a great kid friendly resource on farm animals. It turns out that this website was an ad. We need to instill a healthy dose of skepticism in our students, prepare them to think critically.

I liked one of the tasks she gave the audience which was to list the …

Three Most Important Things We Can Do To Help Prepare Students For Their Future (Not Our Past)

Here were mine:

1) Develop a sense of wonder, play, and inquiry.

2) Learn how to find and use the resources needed to grapple with the questions they encounter.

3) To empathize, listen, network, and collaborate with humility and be able to discern between what is useful or purposeful, and what is superfluous or meaningless.

I know, there are a lot of things going on in the last one, but it was hard to come up with just three. I also had another response: Though I’m not religious, the following three things come from a prayer I learned as a child.

Serenity – to accept the things we cannot change

Courage – to change the things we can.

Wisdom – to know the difference.

 

I think we can prepare students for the first two of those, but the last one is something we have to learn on your own. I know I’m still working on it.

One of the things I enjoyed both this year in Philly and at home last year in Seattle was that the featured speakers were accompanied by “graphic recording artists” who captured visually, in real time, what was being said. Here’s a pdf of Cathy Davidson’s closing keynote.

Click for larger view.

Promoting Collegial Conversations

The last two days have been great days for me in terms of having collegial conversations. They were two very different events, but both professionally stimulating.

Observing Other Teachers Teach

The final keynote speaker at the PNAIS fall conference (almost a month ago) was Rob Evans. He spoke of the many challenges teachers face in having collegial conversations with each other.

Some challenges are obvious, like time. But others exist because of the nature and culture of teaching. Teachers spend more time talking to students than they do talking to other teachers. And as Roland Barth observed, when teachers do get together for things like faculty meetings, what they talk about has very little to do with learning or instruction. In Evans’ article, Getting to No, Evans highlights the difficulty of giving teachers feedback. With the rise in trying to quantify teacher quality and performance, and linking it to job retention, compensation, and other factors, it’s natural for teachers to become defensive when receiving feedback rather than seeing it as an opportunity for growth. It’s also natural for some teachers to play it safe and not try anything innovative or take risks in order to better their craft.

I’m really excited to be on a committee at my school trying to address these challenges. Yesterday, I had 4 teachers in my room observing a lesson, and I in return was able to observe lessons of two of my colleagues. As this is the first time, we’re not at the stage of exchanging feedback yet, though we all agreed that we would feel totally comfortable soliciting that feedback from our peers. We also felt that as long as we weren’t being evaluated, we could trust each other to honestly ask or answer any questions we had about our teaching. This process wasn’t just a learning opportunity for the teacher being observed, but as an observer, one can learn so much from watching their colleagues teach. This doesn’t replace teacher evaluations, but contributes to a culture of learning, growth, and collaboration. It also adds to the professionalization of teaching.

EdCamps

I just returned from EdCamp Seattle today, and it was quite invigorating as an educator. EdCamps are ‘unconferences’ that came about in 2010 as a way for teachers to come together, exchange ideas, and have those collegial conversations. Like the exchanges in Paris Cafés in the 1920s, but with educators. Ok, it’s nowhere near as romantic as poets, artists, and philosophy.

This is the second one that I’ve had the privilege of helping organize. Unlike traditional conferences, participants put up the topics, issues, and ideas that they’d like to discuss. Some are more instructional and informational, others are more collaborative and hands on. While participants mingled over coffee as they arrived, a blank grid was filled to offer over a dozen workshops and conversations. Topics included, design thinking, ipads in the classroom, teacher evaluations, strengthening literature and math, common core transition, and many others.

Grid of workshops offered at EdCamp Seattle

There were over 70 participants today. Unlike other conferences, there is no registration fee. EdCamps are free and voluntary. It’s always invigorating to see so many educators continually pursuing growth in their profession. In 2010, a few teachers had an idea and, in that year, 8 edcamps in various US cities. This year, there have already been over 100 edcamps including ones in Hong Kong, Dubai, Belgium, and Christchurch, NZ!

How Do You Measure Success?

The London Olympic games are coming to a close, and I’ve noticed a few themes/issues throughout the games that seem to spill into the realm of education: 1) How do we measure success? 2) In 20 years, other sites may push twitter or Facebook aside, but I’m pretty confident social media is here to stay. How do we promote digital citizenry and prepare kids to use these tools productively and? 3) Privilege and equity – does every country have a fair shot at a sailing or equestrian medal? Does every child have access to a good education? 4) Standards: what are the standards for commentary on the Olympics? I know very little about gymnastics, but I don’t need someone to point out that a fall off an apparatus is not a good thing. Did the opening ceremony need a play-by-play? Can you imagine giving students the answers rather than providing opportunities to grapple with, discover, and construct their own knowledge? There are many more themes that have emerged from these games, but the first one I mentioned resonates with me the most. How do we measure our own success and the success of our students?

After Michael Phelp’s fourth place finish at his first event, the USA Today had a story titled: “Sluggish Michael Phelps is not swimmer we expected in London.” Since his first event, Phelps has become the most decorated Olympian in history, but I guess if you look just at the one fourth place finish, sluggish it must have been.

Why is it that some athletes cry for joy after winning a silver and other athletes are visibly disappointment, often with tears in their eyes for winning a silver medal.

The most emailed article in the New York Times over the past three days has been one titled: Raising Successful Children. It’s a parenting article about the importance of not over-parenting and allowing children to make mistakes and build resiliency on their way to success and confidence.

I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with the statement, “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” It’s a challenge of teaching as well. Not all failures are equal. They need to be ones that lead to growth. So what kind of mistakes should parents and teachers let kids make?

“In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

Perhaps being called ‘sluggish’ and then coming back to win 4 gold and 2 silver medals can qualify as a good measure of success.

I just came back from a great three day summer planning inservice with my colleagues where we spent a lot of time looking at and practicing how we assess and give feedback to our students and to each other. I wish us all a successful school year that can be measured by the risks we take ourselves in that gray area just beyond the comfortable and by the resilience we develop in our students. 

 

What Does Censoring Children’s Literature do to Critical Thinking?

It saddened me to read in the news that a book by one of my favorite authors, Patricia Polacco was restricted in a Utah school district on Monday.

Patricia Polacco is a prolific children’s writer and for some of my readers we engage in an author study featuring her books. She tends to write from personal experiences about family and friends and her themes vary widely. Some of her most famous books include:

Thank you Mr. Falker, a book about a young girl with dyslexia who realizes her potential thanks to a fifth grade teacher named Mr. Falker.  The epilogue is quite touching when you realize that the girl with dyslexia is the author.

Pink and Say, a book about two boys (one black and one white) during the Civil War. Another touching book.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way, a book about overcoming bullying.

Thundercake, a book about how the author overcame her fear of thunderstorms.

The book that was banned was called In Our Mothers’ House, which is a story about family or three raised by two mothers. I always worry about children’s books that may contain ‘issues’. Often they can be preachy and end up not being very good literature. This book is simply a good story. We had it in our library, so I read it to my students.

I asked them why they thought this book might be banned for children, and it was quite refreshing to hear their responses. The overwhelming response was, “I think some adults don’t think children can handle stories with sad endings.” Only two children identified the two moms as the possible reason and one child said, “I think it might be about the two moms because in some places, they just don’t get it yet.”

I try really hard not to provide any answers for my students. They need to analyze and think for themselves. I enjoy opportunities to do this. If books are censored, how can children develop critical thinking skills? This doesn’t mean I need to read every book on a banned list, but it’s important to get kids thinking.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/utah-school-district-rest_n_1564118.html

Should Educators in the Lower Grades Consider Eliminating Homework?

Challenge Success is a project out of Stanford University’s School of Education. Its mission is to “work with schools, parents and youth to develop and implement action plans to improve student well-being and engagement with learning.”

Recently, they announced that they are working on a series of white papers that evaluate and summarize the body of research in a given topic in order to make the research more accessible and to offer suggestions for educators and parents. Their first paper is on homework and rather than take one side of the argument or the other, they try to answer both viewpoints using the available research. Part of their conclusion included the following:

“Much of the research supporting and refuting the benefits of homework seems to be contradictory, and some of the arguments actually have no research to support their claims. Given that much of the research points to little or no benefits of homework, we urge educators to take a hard look at their current practices and policies. Some educators in the lower grades might consider eliminating homework altogether, and just asking students to spend time reading for pleasure (which is positively connected to achievement), or allow them extra time for play and time with family….”

The research on homework is indeed ambiguous, so it’s nice to have a group that has the time to look at the research more closely. Over the past three years I have looked at my current practices (the policies are outside of my control) and considered eliminating homework (short of reading for pleasure), but the reception of this has been mixed. I’m glad that there is more support for what I’ve been advocating.

The suggestions they offer to teachers and parents to make homework more engaging and meaningful are also good.

An example of a recommendation for parents: “Parents can help organize [students’] time or prioritize assignments, but when parents deliver forgotten assignments to school or step in to rescue a child at the last minute, they may be denying the child the opportunity to develop resilience and fortitude.”

For many adults, finding work/life balance can be tricky. Especially if one is truly engaged and finds meaning in their work. An article published in today’s NYTimes about a course at Google to help their employees achieve that balance comes as no surprise. It would be nice to ensure that our students begin to develop a healthy balance?